Stage 4 Lung Cancer Stats Beginning Upward Climb

Most people who hear of someone being diagnosed with lung cancer know, well, that's bad. And when they hear it is stage 4, that's even worse. That was my experience. When I heard my doctor say "By definition, it is stage 4," I was a bit taken aback. And when I told my friends and family about my diagnosis, some of them got very concerned immediately, even though I had few symptoms and was living an energetic and basically healthy lifestyle at the time.

Going into research mode

Shortly after my diagnosis of non-small-cell lung cancer (NSCLC) in late 2012, I did what many people still think lung cancer patients should not do. I went straight to the internet and began researching my disease. I wanted to know about symptoms, treatments, survival statistics, and anything else that would help me to feel a sense of understanding and control of my situation.

I knew going in that a stage 4 diagnosis meant a rough ride that would probably end at the pearly gates. And when I learned that the 1-year median survival was only 8-12 months and the 5-year survival rate hovered between 1-2 percent, well that pretty much confirmed the reactions I was receiving from most people. That is, most people other than my oncologist.

Prognosis predictions

You see, I wanted my doctor to give me a prognosis so I would have a clear sense of whether I should start living it up and spending my retirement set-aside money immediately, while I was still fit enough to enjoy it. You know, world travel, directed giving to people I could help in the here and now, or whatever else struck me as important at the time. But he would not offer a prognosis. He just told me we would have to treat the disease and see how things proceed, especially since I was in good physical condition overall.

This lead-in is simply to say that even though we have well-known statistics, they are both a large-scale average and cannot predict the future for any single individual, and they are what I call a lagging indicator. The 5-year survival statistics, for instance, must be compiled using data from patients taken a minimum of 5 years prior to the latest publications. Meanwhile, in the past five years, massive changes have occurred in treatment modalities (immunotherapies, targeted therapies, specialized radiation therapies, and combination therapies) that I believe will have a significant impact on future 5-year stats. We just won't know about that for another 5 years or so.

New research brings hope

What gave rise to me going down this road was my surprise when I learned recently of the 8th edition of the American Joint Committee on Cancer (AJCC) Staging Manual that was released in 2017. Unlike in previous staging guides, stage 4 lung cancer is not a single category any longer and is now broken down into stage 4A and stage 4B. While still a very serious stage of this disease with grim survival odds, stage 4A (where I fall) now comes in at 10 percent 5-year survival. That's the first I'd ever heard of such a high number for a stage 4 diagnosis.

For those of us who are patient advocates, we are quite well-versed in using all kinds of legitimate dire statistics surrounding our disease to try and get people's attention both for education and awareness and for funding research. There has not been a lot to cheer about through the years when it came to discussions of late stage lung cancer survival, so a doubling of the 5-year rate, at least for a large portion of stage 4 patients, seemed worthy of a shout-out to me.

Hope comes in many forms

Lung cancer hope for the future comes in many forms - friends who are continuing to live for years and not months, FDA approval of new drug treatments, dedicated researchers working tirelessly on our behalf and, yes, improving survival statistics too.

I plan to be here 5 years from now and expect to see those 4A and 4B numbers go much higher still. Are you with me?

Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on June 8, 2019, Karen Loss passed away. Karen was a valued member of the lung cancer community and an incredible advocate and avid writer. She will be deeply missed.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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